Summerhill and the Central Thread of Life

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January 21, 2008

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Two Books on Love and Freedom

I recently bought two books on A. S. Neill's Summerhill School that I'd not had in my library for many years. One was Neill's autobiography, "Neil! Neil! Orange Peel!" (1972) and the other was "Summerhill: For and Against" (1970) -- a collection of essays about the school by supporters and detractors. Among the featured detractors is Max Rafferty, at the time Superintendent of California's government school system. Summerhill is all about love and freedom for children; Rafferty's reaction is stunning and quite revealing: "That's why Summerhill is a dirty joke. It degrades true learning to the status of a disorganized orgy. It turns a teacher into a sniggering projectionist of a stag movie. It transforms a school into a cross between a bear [sic] garden and a boiler factory. It is a caricature of education."

For and Against reminded me of how hostile to life members of the establishment -- including those with great power over children -- can really be. But the book also includes extremely positive essays by John Holt, Ashley Montagu, John M. Culkin, and others. Culkin, with a doctorate in education from Harvard, calls Summerhill "a holy place" and says "The education critics have, of course, had their fun with Summerhill. Their terror of the idea is probably the most accurate measure of its validity. The eunuchs have always been afraid of life."

Reading Orange Peel and For and Against, I was reminded that a free and healthy world is not only possible, but already available -- at least in a few small communities. For those who wonder if a free society is practical or workable, I suggest an immersion in the material on Summerhill School as a starting point. Summerhill is a long-running, working reality -- not a mere theory. The school was founded in 1921 and is now run by Neill's daughter, Zoe Readhead.

One more thing struck me as I turned the pages of these two books: I again felt the overwhelming, all-encompassing importance of love and freedom, and the tragedy of the lack of those qualities among the nations, towns, schools, and families of this world.

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Love and Freedom for Children

For readers unfamiliar with Summerhill, below are five points taken verbatim from the text of the 1949 British Government Inspectors' Report on the school (most of this material has been used in previous columns as well). Here is what the California Superintendent of Public Instruction was calling "a dirty joke": [emphasis added below]

  • The main principle upon which the School is run is freedom . . . . the degree of freedom allowed to the children is very much greater than the inspectors had seen in any other school and the freedom is real. No child, for instance, is obliged to attend any lessons. As will be revealed later, the majority do attend for the most part regularly, but one pupil was actually at this School for 13 years without once attending a lesson and is now an expert toolmaker and precision instrument maker. This extreme case is mentioned to show that the freedom given to children is genuine and is not withdrawn as soon as its results become awkward . . . . The School however, is not run on anarchist principles. Laws are made by a school parliament which meets regularly under the chairmanship of a child and is attended by any staff and child who wish. This assembly has unlimited power of discussion and apparently fairly wide ones of legislation. On one occasion it discussed the dismissal of a teacher, showing, it is understood, excellent judgment in its opinions. But such an event is rare, and normally the parliament is concerned with the day-to-day problems of living in a community.

  • . . . the children are full of life and zest. Of boredom and apathy there was no sign. An atmosphere of contentment and tolerance pervades the School.

  • . . . the children's manners are delightful. They may lack, here and there, some of the conventions of manners, but their friendliness, ease and naturalness, and their total lack of shyness and self-consciousness made them very easy, pleasant people to get on with.

  • . . . initiative, responsibility and integrity are all encouraged by the system and that so far as such things can be judged, they are in fact being developed.

  • Summerhill education is not necessarily hostile to worldly success.

The report backs up that last point with a list of degrees held and careers followed by former pupils.

The British government inspectors found the children of Summerhill to be responsible, friendly, full of life, and characterized by integrity and initiative. Without being coerced, the children learned what they needed to learn and did well after leaving the school. But clearly, happiness, not test scores, was Neill's concern. As Neill pointed out repeatedly in his writings, Summerhill has always been less about academic achievement than about helping children become emotionally healthy and independent in their thinking.

"Emotional health and independent thinking" are not even on the menu at public schools, of course. No wonder the education establishment was horrified by Summerhill.

In contrast, here is a glimpse of how the California school system fares today, in terms of its own metrics for academic achievement. (In fairness to the late Max Rafferty, someone else is now in charge of this mess.) For the full report discussed in the link at the start of this paragraph, you can download Not as Good as You Think from the Pacific Research Institute (4.1mb, PDF). A snippet from the Introduction:

"Nowhere is this failure wider and deeper than in the nation's largest state, California . In 2006, only about four out of 10 California students in grades two through 11 scored at or above the proficient level in English-language arts and math on the California Standards Test . . . . On the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as 'The Nation's Report Card,' only two out of 10 California fourth graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading, and only three out of 10 scored at or above proficiency in math. Scores for California 's eighth graders were either the same or worse.

"Poor achievement no doubt contributes to the stark reality that 30 percent of California's ninth graders never graduate from high school, with much higher percentages for certain ethnic groups. Those students who do make it out of high school find themselves unprepared for higher education. More than half of the incoming California State University freshmen in 2006 required remedial instruction in math or English."

The academic disaster of our government school system is only part of the story. Constant coercion, relentless boredom, and other mistreatment of children in public schools cause emotional damage and the stunting of intelligent, independent thought -- pretty much what government schooling is designed for, actually, according to John Taylor Gatto, who taught for almost 30 years in the NYC public school system and was three times named NYC "teacher of the year."

How cruel, anti-life, and uncivilized are government schools? Many still spank children as a form of discipline, although some states, including California, have outlawed the practice. Imagine physical violence being used to "discipline" adults at some place you were forced to go to every day.

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The Central Thread of Life

Summerhill School is dramatically different from typical schools and from most other communities, and different in a crucially important manner. Summerhill is a powerful reminder of the single most important thread at the heart of human life. This thread is universal, unchanging, and timeless. It is the "one human religion" that Gandhi spoke of when he wrote, "Even as a tree has a single trunk but many branches and leaves, there is one religion -- human religion -- but any number of faiths."

This single thread is the core truth that makes any true religion (or social system or theory) something other than a scam or a misunderstanding. Added elements which grow up around this central thread are at best fluff, decoration, artwork, and minor distraction; this material adds flavor and forms part of the culture in a society. Such elements are not always benign, however, or even neutral; at worst they corrupt or displace the meaning of the central thread and turn the religion (or social/political system, or whatnot) into something dark and unhealthy.

The central thread is complex because it involves the nature of human life, and human beings are the most complex systems in the known universe. Yet this thread can be distilled to a single word: love.

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Intellectual Understanding Versus Experience

It is not possible to understand love intellectually, any more than it is possible to understand the taste of cinnamon intellectually, or the haunting scent of an incoming thunderstorm. These things can be described intellectually -- that is, in abstract language -- but an abstract description of a lower-level experience is not the same thing as the experience; the description and the experience exist on different levels. Saying "Ouch! I burned my hand on the stove!" is not the same as the feel of my own hand as I pull it away from a hot stove after getting burned.

Because you have also experienced minor burns, you can hear my words and use that message to connect, consciously or otherwise, with memories of similar events in your own life; thus, we can communicate lower-level, concrete experience to each other using abstract, higher-level symbolic language. But if you were one of those rare unfortunates who cannot feel pain, then my comment would not have the same meaning for you. Indeed, my comment would have no meaning at all, at least in terms of my primary message, which is that my hand hurt from being burned.

One cannot hear what one does not already know. This is the reason admonitions to "love one another" so often fall on deaf ears; even those who sincerely try to follow such advice are limited in their understanding by their own experience of love, and in particular by their level of experience with love during infancy and childhood.

Because there is far too little love in the world, the meaning of the word is faint in our ears, and many people misunderstand the meaning or miss it entirely. Harsh, unloving treatment of children in the name of "loving" them is among the most common and damaging of examples.

The failure to understand that love includes freedom -- that it must include freedom, because the two qualities are a binary in human life -- is among the more common and important misunderstandings of love. Freedom itself is thus widely misunderstood as well; in particular, even the freedom movement often seems blind to the truth that freedom in the human realm must include love; again, the two qualities require each other. A free market run by sociopaths is not a stable situation, for example. I use the phrase "love and freedom" so often because those two qualities -- that is, the two sides of this basic human duality -- are so frequently seen as being in opposition to each other. This mistake is constantly fostered by the media and by others interested in maintaining the corrupt status quo.

Freedom is an integral part of the thread of love, and when you hear otherwise, know that you are hearing a lie. Indeed, coercion and love are mortal enemies.

The common misunderstandings of love and freedom tell us that many people lack deep experience with love and freedom; they tell us that most people are severely deprived of the two qualities that make life truly worth living. You don't have to take my word for it; here is a glimpse of today's news, and I am sadly confident that, whatever day you read this, much of the reported news will be, unmistakably, about the dismal lack of love and freedom in the world.

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The Power of Love and Freedom

How powerful is the central thread of love and freedom? Powerful enough, when understood and respected and focused on, to largely overcome imperfections. Neill was not perfect and never claimed to be; Summerhill as a society surely has flaws as well. But perfection is not necessary: Our world today is so far from perfection that simply getting close to real love and freedom is enough to produce staggeringly positive results, enough to produce, as Culkin called Summerhill, "a holy place." Whatever flaws it has, the environment Neill created allowed, and still allows, for children to be themselves, to grow up with a level of compassionate freedom that is almost unknown in most parts of the world. The actual results -- see the comments from the British inspectors above -- are positive enough to show up our present coercive systems for the corrupt, unhealthy frauds they are -- and not only our school systems, but our political systems generally.

Sudbury Valley School (founded in 1968) and others on the Sudbury model are similar to Summerhill, but run as day schools instead of boarding schools. Daniel Greenberg, Sudbury 's founder, has written several books and many articles about the school, and many pupils and staff members have also written about their experiences there. If you believe in freedom for children, and especially if you are a child, Summerhill, Sudbury Valley, and similar schools are worth looking into.

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Comments from Neill

I will leave you with three short quotes by A. S. Neill from his autobiography (pp. 246-248), appropriate to the current presidential campaign season. I do not agree with Neill in every particular on politics, but his comments are insightful and a breath of fresh air compared to most of what is written on the subject:

"The politician's stance, 'I speak for the people who elected me,' often suggests a man of no principles and no guts. If one of my old pupils became a prime minister, I should feel that Summerhill had failed him. Politics means compromise, and free people are very bad compromisers."

"It is all so sinister. When I watch, on TV, the national party conventions in the U.S.A with their infantile parades and bands and flags, I feel dejected and hopeless. Behind these silly facades, I see the self-seeking lobbyists and the rat race of capitalism."

"Summerhill aims at a new democracy of free citizens who will not follow any leader. Until children are no longer molded into castrated sheep, democracy remains a fake and a danger. This is no theory; it is founded on long observation of children who have self-government. No child in my school holds up his hand because he sees me doing so when we vote.

"I grant that our little school parliament could never fit a large democracy. That is why I have never been willing to have more than seventy pupils at most. With 200 boys and girls, it would mean electing representatives; all real interest would be gone. I grant our system is impractical; we cannot have millions of voters raise their hands at a public meeting to vote for or against the Common Market. But a day may come when voters will be free enough to see through all the tricks and oppose lobbying and the self-interest of many politicians; in short, a day may dawn when voters will not be overgrown school kids conditioned from birth to follow leaders mechanically."

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 111

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.